Before you go traveling, get prepared with books

The Argument

Novels and biographies, as well as orthodox guidebooks, will enrich and inform any exploration.


February 03, 2002|By Steve Weinberg | Steve Weinberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Traveling to an unfamiliar city should be a mind-altering experience, because every city has so much unique to teach. Too many travelers, however, become accidental tourists, seeing nothing unique because they are ignorant of their surroundings.

Books read in advance of a visit can reduce that ignorance, can open the eyes, the ears, the mind to the best sort of adventure. Novels, short stories, poetry, serious contemporary and historical nonfiction - as well as the obvious guidebooks - are city-centric. It will usually take effort to identify them, but the effort is worthwhile.

My intent here is to inspire - or shame, if that works better - those of you who travel to unfamiliar cities. Although my life is not particularly virtuous, I am usually virtuous in this realm.

Recently, I traveled to Baltimore. Now, Baltimore is not entirely unfamiliar to me; I lived in Washington, D.C., during 1974-75 and 1978-83. During those habitations, I visited Baltimore occasionally. But, I am ashamed to say, I visited as one of those accidental tourists - the occasional Orioles baseball game (before Camden Yards), the opening of the aquarium, eating Bertha's Mussels, strolling around the newly developed Inner Harbor.

In 1983, I moved to Missouri. As a result, I had not visited Baltimore in 18 years. During those 18 years, I read several of Anne Tyler's many novels set in Baltimore, most memorably Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and, yes, The Accidental Tourist. One longtime Baltimore resident I talked with is so familiar with the city settings in Tyler's novels that he makes distinctions within the city's geography, saying things like "Well, she mostly gets North Baltimore right." A reader/collector of mystery fiction, I have read a few of Laura Lippman's novels, featuring newspaper reporter turned Baltimore private investigator Tess Monaghan.

I also read from afar David Simon's nonfiction books Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (written with former Baltimore homicide detective Edward Burns). They are not set in neighborhoods the normal tourist chooses to visit, but they certainly convey part of the city's reality.(I have watched the television show Homicide: Life on the Street, based on Simon's first book. But this is an essay about books, not television series or full-length feature films. So let us bow toward television/film producer/director Barry Levinson, then move on. Thanks to Levinson's television adaptation of Simon's book, however, there is a tome called Homicide: Life on the Street - the Unofficial Companion by David P. Kalat. He is not a Baltimore resident, but his book does suggest the interesting atmosphere of the city.)

Being a biographer myself, I found it painless to read a biography of H.L. Mencken, Baltimore's most revered/reviled son, as well as some of Mencken's essays about the city. Some of the information is dated, but Mencken as a keen observer is never dated, nor is Mencken as a prose stylist.

The novels, the gritty nonfiction and the Mencken gave me far more pleasure than the guidebooks, but those guidebooks and traditional histories have their uses. A Guide to Baltimore Architecture, third edition, by John Dorsey and James D. Dilts, contains an essay by Phoebe B. Stanton with this paragraph that conveyed usable insight: "The conservatism of taste in design and a stubborn resistance to change that have characterized Baltimore will bring whole neighborhoods virtually intact or even improved into the 21st century." Included in the book is a fascinating essay from 1968, "The Streets of Baltimore," by once-famous novelist John Dos Passos.

The history book Baltimore: The Building of an American City by Sherry H. Olson contains this candid passage: "In each generation there has been present a substantial hostility, outrage and mutual fear among factions of Baltimore society ... As in other cities, the hostilities had a geographic expression. A zone of tension ran around the town between blue-collar neighborhoods, black and white, roughly along Broadway, Twenty-fifth Street and Fulton Street ..."

Baltimore: An Illustrated History by Suzanne Ellery Green Chapelle is filled with most innocuous text accompanied by fine images. A book that is now an antique (1951 publication date) is The Amiable Baltimoreans by Francis F. Beirne. I especially enjoyed its section on old-time local journalists.

With my knowledge of Baltimore enriched, I started thinking about books to help a traveler understand St. Louis better. It is the big city closest to me geographically. Visitors who decide to seek me out 120 miles to the west usually come through St. Louis. When I travel to St. Louis for reasons other than use of the big airport, I want to comprehend its uniqueness more thoroughly than I do now.

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